Ruth Lawlor examines the publication reaction to Miley Cyrus’ recent performances and videos.
In case you haven’t heard by now, Miley Cyrus has ruined her life. Or, at least, that’s what the media has led us to believe. The once good-girl country singer began her campaign to destroy herself when she released the video for ‘We Can’t Stop’, she reinforced it with her bizarre VMA performance, and now it’s finally been realised with the relentless commentary on ‘Wrecking Ball’.
What we are witnessing in Miley Cyrus is the clumsy and amateurish blossoming and progression of sexual identity. It’s the rite of passage of all young people, men and women alike, but for some reason becomes more complex and, indeed, more contentious in the case of the female.
Because gender roles are more fluid today than they have been in the past, there are no longer set paths upon which men and women must embark. This means that young people are free to construct their identity in a knowing and conscious way – women increasingly have the ability to choose to go to work, for example, or to stay at home. For Cyrus this choice was perhaps less free because her parents made a decision to make her a child star, and created a “good girl” image for her that she might never have wanted. The media then constrained her to that image and today lampoons her for rejecting it, as she did when she ripped apart the teddy bear, that symbol of childhood and innocence, at the beginning of her VMA performance.
The reality is that Miley Cyrus today is no longer a child but a young woman exploring her sexuality, as all young people do. The difference is that her experiences – including her mistakes and her desires – are necessarily viewed and scrutinised by the public, who do not want her to grow up.
Does Cyrus owe a duty to her fans? Must she forever remain true to the good girl Hannah Montana because we want her to? Not really. The Hannah Montana identity engulfed Cyrus in a way that she could never have foreseen as a child. The alter-ego was not a creation of her own imagination and yet she was forced to become it, even though it was never “her”. What we are seeing at the moment is Cyrus’ attempt to break free from that restrictive and probably suffocating identity, and a simultaneous search for her own sense of self – and even if that self is provocative, sexual and daring, we should not reject it out of hand. The VMA performance showed that Cyrus was perhaps not yet mature enough to celebrate her sexuality in the way that Madonna and others have done before her. Yes, we should criticise her routine, but we should criticise it because she sang terribly and failed as an artist but not, as some would suggest, as a woman or as a role-model.
The Hannah Montana identity engulfed Cyrus in a way that she could never have foreseen as a child. The alter-ego was not a creation of her own imagination and yet she was forced to become it, even though it was never “her”.
The ‘Wrecking Ball’ video has become the latest controversy to shake the Cyrus world. A 40-year-old man writing in The Guardian claimed that the video says young women must be sexually available in order to succeed, but this is an exceptionally narrow and reductive stance to take on the subject. Rihanna is naked in the video for Stay and Lady Gaga in many of her music videos. So why are we so critical of Cyrus for following the same path? Once a good girl, always a good girl? That is a particularly damaging perspective because it suggests that “good girls” should not explore the sexual aspect of their personalities, and that to do so will result in ruination and damnation. The good girl becomes “disgusting”, becomes “damaged goods” once she begins to access and understand her own sexual identity.
This is an outdated view of female sexuality and is detrimental in a modern environment where women should be encouraged to take control of their sexuality and their sexual identity instead of being subservient to the sexual needs and desires of men. Are we so conservative that we fear the sexual assertiveness of young women? The ‘Wrecking Ball’ video is tastefully done, and when I watched it I couldn’t help but think that Miley Cyrus is beautiful. The video is a celebration of female sexual identity, it glorifies the female body from a female, rather than a male, perspective (as was the case in the heavily criticised Blurred Lines video), and it is a graceful peak to the exploration of self that began with her flesh-coloured bikini and teddy-bear twerking several months ago.
Newspapers are rife at the moment with claims that Miley was a good singer who did not need to sink to such inappropriate behaviour to secure her fame. To think in this manner is to woefully miss the point. Miley Cyrus is already famous, and her actions are not necessarily about trying to antagonise or provoke the general public. Pictured nude on the cover of Rolling Stones magazine recently, Cyrus stuck her tongue out at the world – she doesn’t care what you think. You are partly responsible for this new image because you watched Hannah Montana and you believed in the character but forgot that there was a real person hiding in there.
Finally, telling the world that Cyrus should not have followed the same depraved path as singers such as the previously mentioned Lady Gaga (I focus on her because she was the example most frequently used by journalists discussing Cyrus’ VMA performance), we say admit something uncomfortable about the way that we view women in the media in general. Lady Gaga is a good performer too, but she is tainted by her sexual image. Should she be? As a successful and talented woman, she should be free to make these choices without our judgment and disdain.
When we criticise Miley Cyrus for this series of courageous statements, we fail to recognise that we ourselves probably made mistakes when we were growing up too. We are slut shaming her for trying to connect with her sexual identity and we are saying that it’s wrong to do that. We forget that her music is still good, and if we loved Hannah Montana for her voice then we should love Miley for hers too.